How long will this take?
We don't have the final answer to anything. We're evaluating thousands of strains and large numbers of genetic changes. The long-term solution is to make the entire genetic code from scratch and control all the parameters. To us, this is a long-term plan. It's a 10-year plan. We're not promising new fuel for your car in the next 18 months.
So how long would it take before people can gas-up with algae fuel?
The time it takes to build a large-scale facility to produce billions of gallons; it takes three to four years just to build the facility once we know what to build. There's a lot of what I call bio-babble and hype out there from a lot of bioenergy companies. I don't see it. These are huge challenges. Nobody has the yields, that I'm aware of, to make it economical—and, if it's not economical, it can't compete. It's going to be the ones with scientific innovation and deep-pocket partners that can see to making the long term investment to get someplace.
How will you get nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, to stimulate algae growth?
We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and seawater, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert all those things. We're looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredients. It helps if it's near a major refinery because that limits shipping distances. Moving billions of gallons of hydrocarbons around is expensive. But refineries are also a good source of concentrated CO2.
It's the integration of the entire process. [Synthetic Genomics] is not trying to become a fuel company. You won't see SGI gas stations out there, we're leaving that to ExxonMobil. We will help them shift the source of hydrocarbons to material recycled from CO2.
What about water? Algae would need a lot of it to grow.
We think we can recycle a lot of what we're doing. … Novel technologies for recycling wastewater [like microbial fuel cells]. Water is a problem, recycling it and capturing back all the nutrients. If you have to add tons of fertilizer per acre you're not really solving anything.
What was the bigger challenge: the human genome or algae?
There are 500 different parameters in the cells and in the systems. Absolutely, algae is the bigger challenge. I did [the human genome] in nine months. This is definitely a bigger challenge. It also has a lot bigger implications for the world if we're successful.
How will synthetic biology play a role?
Genome design and genetic code synthesis play a huge role. We need to control all those parameters. I doubt there's any naturally occurring cell that would combine all those in an optimal fashion. It wouldn't have any value in terms of natural evolution. We have to make it happen and do it synthetically with our programs.
The synthesis side of it is no longer a challenge. The cell we started with is a goat pathogen. It has 1.1 million base pairs. Some of the simpler algae are not even twice that size. We can routinely make chromosomes in megabase size range. Synthesizing is no longer the rate limiting step of this problem.
The state of biological knowledge in the world is so limited. Even those Mycoplasma cells with less than 500 genes, there are still 200 genes of unknown function in that cell. There is not a living system where we understand even most of the genes in the cell and what they all do. That's our biggest challenge: overcoming the limits of biological knowledge at this point.
Now what we know because of our synthetic cell is that once we are able to design what we want, we can build it. That's not something we knew five years ago. Nobody made things. The largest piece of synthetic DNA was 30,000 base pairs. Now we're making these large constructs and being able to do something with them to test the biology.
Tell me about the two-year Sorcerer II cruise, where you sampled a huge amount of ocean DNA—so large that you concluded you found 95 percent of all genes known to science.
We didn't know at that time we would end up in the algae business. We sampled in fact by just looking at the genetic code to understand what was out there. We have a broader view than almost anybody about the diversity of genetics and algae around the planet. That's why we're not so sanguine about finding the magic bug out there to do everything. Those 50 [million] or 60 million genes that Sorcerer II has discovered are the design components of the future.